Eco-race for eye-catching exteriors

Innovative packaging doesn’t have to cost the Earth and can brighten up the dullest displays, writes Charles Orton-Jones


Packaging is more than a functional trade. Peer closely and you’ll see it’s a world sparkling with little moments of genius and inspiration.

Jillian Wright Skincare range comes in boxes impregnated with wild flower seeds. When you are done with the face cream, soak the boxes in water and plant them. In a few weeks you’ll have daisies and snapdragons dancing merrily in the sunlight. A cynic might say the packaging will bring more joy than that product.

Or remember when Heinz turned its ketchup bottles upside down to stand on the cap so every drop of gloopy red goodness could be squeezed without hernia-inducing shaking? That was just the start. Today designers are making the packaging an integral part of the experience.

Thelma’s Cookies come in a cardboard box which looks like an oven. You open the “oven door” to get the cookies out. It’s just impossible not (a) to smile at the silly cuteness of it and (b) to feel that you really are getting oven-fresh cookies.

The Festina Profundo diving watch is sold in a clear plastic bag of water. You’ll remember the creativity of the packaging department long after the details of the watch inside have faded from memory.

Some of the most brilliant developments have been to address the environmental concerns of the packaging trade.

Kenco launched its eco-refill coffee packs in 2009 and the brand cites it as a reason it has grown faster than the market as a whole. Consumers now buy more eco-refill packets than jars, each time saving 84 per cent of materials. Hard proof that when given the choice consumers will go green.

Other masterstrokes are harder to see. Drinks cans are a huge retail category; more than nine billion are sold in the UK each year. To cut down on waste the cans have got thinner and thinner. It is now possible to make three tin cans from the same aluminium used by one 30 years ago. Recycling is now so efficient that a recycled aluminium can uses just 5 per cent of the energy taken to produce a new one and 30 per cent for a steel one. And these are infinitely recyclable products.

Some of the most brilliant developments have been to address the environmental concerns of the packaging trade

Nampak Plastics is one of the major names in plastic milk bottle production. A bright spark had the idea of moving the handle to the side of the pack and switching to 30 per cent recycled HDPE plastic, twice the normal amount. By making the casing thinner, only a quarter of the plastic is now needed; significant when you are talking about 300 million bottles.

In the bread industry, the Carbon Trust worked with Amcor Flexibles and Premier Foods to improve the bread bags for Hovis Seed Sensations. These are made from bio-polymers which reduces the carbon intensity of production by 65 per cent.

Naturally, commercial concerns will always motivate the packaging world. Like birds of paradise in the Amazon rainforest, packaging designers are in an arms race to come up with more eye-catching exteriors.

In pubs and clubs the punters have a few seconds to decide what spirit to order. Their eye scans the shelf searching for a brand to latch on to. To shine brighter than rivals the Ballantine’s

Finest blended Scotch whisky bottle has been fitted with an LED screen where the paper label used to be. The image shows bars of a graphic equaliser pumping up and down in rhythm with the music in the club. When grouped in unison, Ballantine bottles will communicate with each other so the light effect seems to radiate from a central point across the bottles.

Convenience is a crucial differentiator. Remember those casings which were just impossible to cut through? Now an easy-tear strip means the product can be removed, yet without compromising security. Which? magazine found 40 per cent of consumers had injured themselves on packaging in the last two years: these little improvements are more than merely cosmetic.

This is the packaging industry in a snapshot. Bubbling with quirky innovations and improvements to make our lives just that bit easier and brighter. To dismiss these as facile is itself rather shallow.

For example, each year Château Mouton Rothschild wine gets an eminent artist to paint the label. Previous contributors include Picasso, Chagall, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Joan Miró and royal watercolourist Prince Charles. Only a Neanderthal would call these contributions “only packaging”.

The ultimate in packaging creativity? How about Catherine Conway’s organic grocery store Unpackaged where there is zero packaging. Customers bring their own containers (packaging). They weigh them, fill them with beans, lentils and nuts, then pay only for the foodstuffs they take away.

For her eco-minded North London hipster clientele, it’s the ultimate concept in sustainability. For Ms Conway, it’s a brilliant way to survive in the cut-throat world of retail while staying true to her ethical belief system.

Whatever your tastes, there are gems to be found in this industry.